This Week In Bots: Nothing’s Gonna Stop Them Now–The Robot Revolution Is Everywhere

From real estate to medicine to retail, practically every industry is seeing a rise in machines entering the futuristic field. Here’s why that’s a good thing (for the most part).



Quadrocopter Swarms Go Tiny

If you’re a fan of This Week In Bots you’ll be exquisitely familiar with quadropters–the technology is blooming right now because the battery, motor, and control technology is ubiquitous and the stable flight platform offered by the design promises so much for the future of aerial robotics. That’s why we’ve seen them dance, perform ridiculous aerobatics, and even build things. Now UPenn’s GRASP lab, behind so many of these innovations, has taken the design and added a sci-fi spin: Miniaturization. They’re calling them nano-quadrotors, and as the video below shows, by making them small you can pack more together in a limited flying space and create truly astonishing swarm behavior.



It’s not just for show, though. If you equipped each of these devices with some AI and a degree of autonomy plus a sensor suite, they could be far more efficient than many other methods in searching a collapsed building (or the upper decks of a sunken cruise liner?) after a disaster–snaking in and out of confined spaces and where terrain would be tricky for humans. Alongside that there are policing and military uses that should be obvious, and one can maybe imagine news agencies adopting the technology to gain incredible footage of developing news scenes.


Lobby Greeters Go Robotic

You’ve seen telepresence work in medical environments and for remote-attendance of office meetings, but now the makers of one type of telepresence robot have a new and quite remarkable spin on the tech that mixes in telepresence and a dab of call-center thinking. Anybots will now, for $2,400 a month, send you one of their QB telepresence droids and hook your business up with its 40-hour-a-week AnyLobby service so that your offices can get a human-ish face to meet, greet, and help visitors to your office lobby.

As pointed out over at Automaton blog, not only can these robots offer a cheaper alternative to a real person and a better service to visitors than a depressingly inhuman lobby phone with a note saying to “Call Jim on extension x” or whatever, but if your needs are pretty sporadic, then one professional human robot operator could manage a number of robots–and be located anywhere.

Virtual contracted employees–a whole new layer of robot tech to think about. Will your office cleaner be replaced by one operated over telepresence soon, or will your IT support staff spin up to your desk in robot form before visiting in person?




Real Estate Demos Go Telepresence

Lest you think telepresence lobby staff is just a single example of virtual staffing, the Personal Robotics Group at MIT recently hit the press because of its ideas for telepresence meeting-and-greeting of a different nature, where the job of showing prospective buyers around a property could be delegated to a telepresence droid. The team has been working on the tech for some years, tyring to hone the real-feel qualities of the robots so that a task as highly personal and important as helping someone buy a home doesn’t feel odd or less satisfying than talking in person.

There are years to go before artificial agents like MITs can do the job, but we see no blockages to a getup like Anybots trying a telepresence version sooner rather than later. Stairs would be an issue, with most telepresence robots opting for a wheeled chassis to keep costs low, but there are creative solutions that could solve that problem. Plus it saves real estate agents time purring up and down the streets of town in their cars–thus lowering their costs (let’s not go crazy and imagine these savings would be passed on to their clients, though).

Cancer Surgery Goes Robo-crab


This slightly stretches the definition of a robot (especially if you go with Douglas Adams’ famous “your plastic pal who’s fun to be with!” version), but technically the device is designed to replace the work of a human–and potentially do it better and more reliably: It’s a novel robot for tackling stomach cancer.

Inspired by a meal of Singapore’s famous chilli crab dish, a surgeon and roboticist in Singapore have come up with MASTER, the Master And Slave Transluminal Endoscopic Robot. Designed to be deployed through an endoscope, the robot is a claw-like tool that both grips cancerous tissue and precisely excises it while simultaneously cauterizing the wound. It avoids bigger open-surgery trauma to the patient, and because the robot’s limbs don’t tremble or slip the way human hands do, it can offer more precise treatment. A company was formed to commercialize it late in 2011, and the team hopes to sell it within three years.

Mannequins Go Sci-Fi

If you’re of a certain age, this story will prompt a famous late-1980’s film theme tune to worm into your thoughts…and if you’re a Doctor Who fan you may get a chill: Dr Hiroshi Ishiguro, the Japanese roboticist behind the freakishly real-looking Geminoid robots, has turned his skills to improving boring, static store-window fashion mannequins. By making them move like a human model may.




As part of a Valentine’s day promotion an Ishiguro Geminoid robot is sitting in a display at Takashimaya department store in Tokyo, doing familiar human things like smiling, yawning, adjusting her position in her chair and nodding at visitors–with a degree of interactivity when she senses passersby. The droid’s face is capable of over 60 human-like expressions.

We’re not sure what expressions you might suddenly display if the droid activated near you when you weren’t expecting it, but we’re guessing that even Ishiguro can’t quite make his robots display sheer pant-wetting terror yet. He does think it’s the “future of shop displays.”

Car Robots Go Best-Selling

Skeptics among you may doubt that the robots we write about here will touch your daily life anytime soon, and true many of them are research devices designed to inform far-off consumer tech. But don’t believe that the robot revolution is already underway, because as IndustryWeek notes, sales of industrial robots in North America in 2011 hit an all-time high. Well over a billion dollars of robot tech was brought into the U.S., beating the previous record set in 2005, and it’s not just car-making robots: Non-automotive customers went up 27%, with the metalworking and semiconductor industry pushing the market. Better yet, while overall orders jumped up 47% compared to 2010, the dollar amount only went up 38%. Robots are getting cheaper, more reliable, and more capable.


Flapping Bots Go Butterfly-Like

We write a lot about biomimicry in all sorts of technology because it’s an important idea–life has already come up with many creative solutions to some of the scientific and engineering tasks we set for ourselves and our devices. Now butterflies are in the mix, as researchers at Johns Hopkins have realized that the efficient way that butterflies can propel themselves through the air can help build better nano-drones. Technically called ornithopters, flapping-wing robots may be the best aids for some search-and-rescue and military purposes due to their efficiency and ability to deal with unexpected air gusts–which is why engineering student Tiras Lin has been photographing them in lab conditions. You may be wowed by nano-quadrotors, but imagine the sensation you’ll get in a while seeing a fleet of robo-butterflies perform similar tasks.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter (he’s not a Geminoid) and Fast Company too.

About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)